Reviews | English is messy. Should I spell it?

One of the best things that happened around 200 BCE (at least from this linguist’s perspective) was that a librarian from Alexandria, Aristophanes of Byzantium, invented the first punctuation system that deserved the name – a better one than we are. used to. A high markup (“˙”) meant a point, like our period; in the middle (“·”) signified a brief pause, a firm but gentle separation, like our comma; and a bottom (“.”) meant something in between, a kind of breathing, like our semicolon.

Compare this simple and neat approach to the confusions of our current system: the perennial controversy over the use of the Oxford comma after the penultimate element of a series, despite an “and” following it, which many take to eliminate the need, in most cases. case, for a comma. The semicolon is another pot of fish; often you follow it with an adverb preceded by a comma. (See what I did there?) It’s not intuitive and usually needs to be taught. In general, the semicolon worries people – many never feel like they’re using it correctly.

Still, we’re probably stuck with these idiosyncrasies. Tradition dies hard. This is also true with regard to spelling, the vexation of which I thought of when looking at a flyer for a food truck charging something like “official” amidst a number of other errors of this kind. It reminded me of a similar flyer I had once seen, filled with offers such as the chocolate ‘mouse’. Both were, I’m sure, made up of hard-working entrepreneurs too busy providing good food at affordable prices to laser-focus on a spelling system that’s a big, crazy mess.

We can shrug our shoulders and attribute the many quirks of English to tradition. Or we can try to think beyond our time, as President Theodore Roosevelt tried to do when he sent a letter in 1906 to the public printer, Charles Stillings, directing him to use in various official communications the simplified spellings of about 300 words recommended by the Simplified Spelling Board, a group sponsored by Andrew Carnegie that included no less personality than Mark Twain. The question is whether we will continue until the end of time to settle for a pathetically wacky spelling system when English is, for better or for worse, the closest thing in the world of a universal language, imposed on millions of innocent people who truly deserve better.

Consider the word “you,” which can refer to both single and plural recipients. In this case, the context guides understanding. In the word “to know”, what is there with the “k”? Couldn’t we write “no”? It would create, yes, a homophone with the negative ‘no’, but we are dealing with countless homophones and the world keeps spinning. On the other hand, if we are to distinguish “know” from “no” with different spellings, must the distinguishing letter be, of all things, a “k”?

There is an argument that counterintuitive spellings draw our attention to the relationships between words: if ‘know’ was ‘no’ and ‘knowledge’ was ‘nalij’, the relationship would be obscured. But that wouldn’t really be a tragedy. People who wrote “no” and “nalij” would always be aware that knowledge is something you know, that they can see it in the spelling. How urgent is it, after all, that “uncanny” is based on “can” and yet most are unaware of it? Don’t even get me started on “recognize” – the “k” is pretty silly, but what is the “c”?

“Comb”, “bomb” and “tomb” do not rhyme. You might laugh that in French the last four letters of “beaus” make the single sound “o”, but then what about the way “rire” is written in English compared to the way we pronounce it? Or how, as a child, you may never have been sure what pronunciation Charles Schulz was suggesting when his Peanuts characters exclaimed “Aaugh!” “Cough”, “plug”, “although”, “through”, “enough” – indeed, enough!

The English Spelling Society is an organization that has long maintained that English spelling is terrible. Its chairman, University of Minnesota linguist and etymologist Anatoly Liberman, has long suggested that because change is hard to adapt to, we start spelling reform with a few words and gradually increase the stock over time. time. Among the Society’s initial suggestions, he mentions “enuff” and “coff”.

Even for readers sympathetic to the idea in the abstract, it may seem shocking to see reformed spellings on the printed page – “enuff” is as phonetic and logical as possible, but when written down it still looks unfamiliar. and, for some, probably, inelegant. For a period beginning in the 1930s, the Chicago Tribune started a “healthy” spelling program, where the newspaper used spellings such as “crum”, “rime”, “missil”, and “iland”. The last one was perhaps particularly welcome, because the only reason we spell “ile” with an “s” is probably that some scribes probably mistakenly thought the English word was related to the French word “ile” when that was not the case. But The Tribune’s effort never really caught on, and it might seem hard to imagine today’s English speakers adapting to new spellings, no matter how rational.

One of the ways in which language change can happen quickly is when it is tied to issues of social justice: just think of how quickly so many Americans, especially young Americans, have familiar with the new usage of “they”, which I wrote about in my newsletter last year. Teenagers are often heard using it with occasional fluency, and they are the future. The term “Latinx” in academic and activist circles is a similar example. To a time traveler from just 20 years ago, neutral pronouns and adjectives like these would seem unlikely as gatekeepers. What probably makes the difference is the feeling that adopting these customs amounts to promoting the interests and preferences of people making their wishes known from outside the traditional centers of power.

Hopefully it would help people adjust somewhat to more intuitive (albeit weird) spellings if these new spellings were seen as some kind of social justice. Children whose first language is English have to work longer to learn to read than their counterparts. This crowds out school time that could be used to learn other things. Dyslexia seems to be less prevalent in many other languages ​​because the mapping of the sounds we utter to the chaos of their representation on the page (“cough”, “branch”, “enough”) is so complex and often arbitrary. English-speaking children are twice as likely to show signs of dyslexia as Italian children, for example.

Additionally, English is notoriously difficult to master for the legions of people around the world who must learn it as a second or third language. However, when it comes to languages, English isn’t particularly difficult – if you want something difficult, try Polish, Lithuanian or Navajo. A good part of what frustrates English learners is spelling. To think beyond our times is to imagine English as an international language that welcomes learners with spellings that actually make sense. Finnish spelling does – the sounds you make perfectly match the letters on the page. But let’s face it, the likelihood of Finnish being a lingua franca is slim. So why can’t English settle down a bit?

Busy people who lead busy lives shouldn’t have to put up with spelling seemingly designed to be difficult, random, and frustrating. Think, for example, of this word, “busy.” Why is his “u” pronounced “ih”? And why is the “y” in this word and at the end of the adverbs pronounced “ee”?

I could go there. We English speakers are wallowing in spelling mud. You have to be careful.


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